Are All Those Veggie Chips and Grain-Free Crackers Actually Healthier?
Names can be deceiving.
In 2018, Fast Company published an article called "Why trendy cauliflower products will soon dominate the entire grocery store." Author Nina Raphael professed that "Nielsen data found the ingredient across 36 different grocery store categories, in everything from dried pasta to frozen foods." In 2017, she wrote, sales for packaged cauliflower products such as chips, crackers, rice, pizza crust, and other kinds of carbs grew more than 70 percent.
Fast-forward to a few years later, and other vegetables and legumes of all varieties have hitched themselves to cauliflower's caboose. Now grain-free, plant-based chips and crackers crowd the aisles, boasting ingredients from avocado to yuca. But despite their health halo, is eating a no-grain beet cracker or cauliflower chip any better for you than eating, say, a kettle-style potato chip?
Not really, says nutritionist and dietician Monica Auslander Moreno. "They're not a salad. They're not a vegetable. They're still quite processed. If you want to eat those vegetables, eat them as they were meant to be eaten."
Just how processed are they? Continue on to find out:
Moreno suggests comparing product labels side by side. It doesn't really matter what you choose—something comprised of lentils or chickpeas, for example—versus your favorite Doritos. What you'll most likely discover is that they all have roughly the same amount of calories (make sure to adjust for deceptive serving sizes) and carbohydrates.
Further, she advises, the so-called "healthy" chips or crackers will usually still have some sort of an emulsifying ingredient, probably maltodextrin or something similar. While manufacturers include this preservative for "consistency and integrity of the product," Moreno says, "it's very troubling with folks who have irritable bowel syndrome." In fact, she notes, foods that are highly processed in general are hard for any gut to break down.
But even for those plant-based chips that are organic, all-natural, or made without preservatives, for those with IBS or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), cauliflower, beet, and bean chips or crackers are truly bad ideas. Such vegetables and legumes are high FODMAP foods that comprise short-chain carbohydrates and sugar alcohols that cause gas, bloating, and other discomforts for those who have gut disorders (and even for those who don't, as many cauliflower lovers well know). In general, those with healthy digestive tracts can eat a few plant-based chips and be fine, but do most of us stop after only one handful?
Naturally, there's nothing wrong with actually liking them or replacing wheat crackers with plant-based crackers if you're gluten-intolerant. But if your condition is the result of being celiac or another gastrointestinal autoimmune disorder, you could be doing yourself a serious disservice by making your disease worse.
You could also have a reaction to hidden fillers or be subjecting yourself to unwanted fats. One recurring filler is coconut, which has a high-calorie count as well as a strong flavor. Nuts, a migraine trigger and common allergen, are another ingredient regularly found in these no-grain chips. Another downside is that nut products, such as almond crackers, have a high oil content and are likely to quickly go rancid. If you don't finish a box or bag almost immediately upon opening, you might as well toss them—which is, of course, like literally throwing your money in the trash.
Rising Grocery Bills
Price is another consideration. Often it seems that you pay twice as much for half the size of something like a bag of tortilla chips. Why not, then, buy organic corn chips instead, with no fillers, no manipulation, and no misleading health halo?
Moreno agrees, especially if you're not gluten-intolerant. "There's nothing wrong with eating a handful of whole wheat crackers," she says. "There's no real benefit to eating chickpeas when they're manufactured into a $6 box of crackers." Especially when you're then tempted to eat a whole small box of them at one sitting.
Try Global Substitutes
While cauliflower, lentil, chickpea, beet, avocado, and other kinds of plant-based chips and crackers feel new to Americans, the truth is other countries have been successfully using starches ranging from boniato to bananas for millennia, both as homemade and packaged snacks. Staples in other cultures like Chinese rice crackers, Indian lentil papadum, and Latin American plantain, boniato, and yuca chips can put some tasty crunch in your diet without any wheat. So if you enjoy these "alternatives," check out some established imports, which you can find in most Asian and Latin groceries.
Sure, they may not be any healthier. But nothing fried, processed, packaged, and—let's be real, entirely addictive—should claim to be a health product in the first place. Nor should we treat it as such. We suggest following Moreno's advice to "enjoy what you want to enjoy" in moderation. "Grab nuts and dark chocolate chips as a snack for when you're home," she advises. "Keep the rest as a treat for when you're out."